Diabetes And… Navigating Technology’s Impact on Mental Health


 

It’s National Diabetes Awareness Month! This week, we’re sharing stories of #DiabetesAnd – the experiences, identities, and challenges we live with in addition to and alongside our diabetes that impacts our life with diabetes. Thank you to our friends at Insulet, makers of the Omnipod Insulin Management and Delivery System, for their support of this conversation. 

Below, we hear from Weronika Burkot, a Polish artist and content creator based in Belgium who lives with Type 1 diabetes, about her experiences with #DiabetesAnd technology’s impact on mental health. Join in the conversation online by reading other’s and posting your own #DiabetesAnd experiences using the hashtag #DiabetesAnd

This article is also available in Spanish, French, German, and Dutch.


I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes in 1995 when no one even dreamed of the diabetes technology that we have today. I remember very well how I waited for my very first insulin pump. This was my first encounter with new diabetes technology. I was so excited I even drew a picture of a pump in my pocket school-year calendar next to the training day date. I was as proud as a 12-year old girl only could be. I still have this child-like excitement for diabetes technology but after all these years with diabetes, I take everything with a grain of salt…

I love diabetes technology, but sometimes it’s a burden

Technology is a blessing and a curse at the same time. Today, we cannot imagine life without electronic devices. Same in the diabetes world – many people with diabetes (PWDs) cannot imagine life without glucose monitoring systems. It is not strange to say that devices like smartphones pose a potential threat to our mental health; there are hundreds if not thousands of materials regarding this topic.

But what about constant monitoring via sensors? Are we paying enough attention to psychological issues related to continuous glucose monitor (CGM, like the Dexcom or Medtronic Guardian Connect) or flash glucose monitor (FGM, like the Abbott Freestyle Libre) use?

There is no denying that glucose monitoring systems are a huge help in diabetes management. What we may not be aware of, is that many aspects of wearing a CGM/FGM (e.g. safety, being in public, insertion sites, skin reactions, constant information flow, awareness of hypoglycemia, and hyperglycemia, intimacy, etc.) can have an influence on our mental health. Of course, it does not mean we should stop using diabetes technology. We just need to be prepared for possible obstacles.

The impact my CGM had on my mental health

A few years ago, I had to resign from one of the systems since I developed a very strong allergic reaction to the glue in the sensor’s adhesive. What was even more exhausting than physical discomfort due to itching and burning, was all the stuff happening in my head. I remember the frustration I felt each time I took off the expired sensor and when I had to apply a new one. I was overwhelmed with emotions, mostly anger and sadness. This situation was making my everyday life with diabetes miserable. Not to mention I spent a lot of extra time looking for a solution, but my search turned out to be unfruitful. In the end, my endocrinologist let me choose a different system. The relief was unimaginable.

As I see many people in the community struggling with a problem of an allergic reaction to different sensors, I also noticed that there are even more issues that are not manifesting themselves in a physical way, but psychologically. In a world already overloaded with information, we can feel overwhelmed with data and too many alarms from the sensor. There is also the other extreme to this problem: we can feel anxious about the lack of data and experience stress even during a short time without an active sensor (e.g. sensor warm-up).

The benefit of planned technology breaks

I recently had an opportunity to switch from one system to another and I decided to take a short break during this transition. I practice this “CGM detox”, from time to time, to reduce the risk of the burden associated with sensor use. I noticed that such breaks make me calmer. I do not experience anxiety associated with a lack of information from the sensor anymore. I really appreciate those small breaks because I can take time to reconnect with my body and learn how to listen to it better (e.g. to notice the symptoms of hypoglycemia faster). It also reassures me that I can handle my diabetes in any situation – with or without a glucose monitoring system. Because in the end, I am the one responsible for my diabetes, not my sensor. A sensor is just a tool that helps me manage my diabetes better.

We cannot forget that technology is here to help us, but we are the ones making decisions. There is no perfect device, there is no perfect sensor/insulin pump/glucose meter/pen. Each device has both advantages and disadvantages. The most important thing is that it meets OUR needs and expectations. A device that works for one person can be a complete failure for another. Therefore, it is important that we approach all information with the appropriate distance. If something is popular, it does not necessarily mean that it will fit us. Everyone has a different approach to different issues; for everyone, different device’s functions and features are important. One person may face problems that another person will never encounter. We have to respect not only our bodies, but also our feelings.

We cannot be afraid of communicating all our worries, expectations, hopes, and fears. Communication is the key to analyze the potential influence of diabetes technology on our mental health. Healthcare providers, diabetes companies, endocrinologists, family, and friends need to take into account the patient’s perspective and support their choices. Diabetes is so much more than just a chronic disease. Is a constant work 24/7/365. To achieve balance in diabetes management we need to care both for our physical and mental health.

I hope that each one of you in the diabetes community will find a solution that is perfect for them and bravely face problems if such arise.

WRITTEN BY Weronika Burkot, POSTED 11/13/20, UPDATED 11/17/20

Weronika Burkot is a Polish artist and content creator based in Belgium. She has been living with type 1 diabetes for over 25 years and creates diabetes art to inspire, motivate and support the diabetes community.